Alex Thomson is embarking on his fifth Vendée Globe campaign, Helen Fretter finds out what drives him
Everyone knows Alex Thomson. He’s not only one of the most immediately recognisable IMOCA 60 skippers, but one of the few sailors who have managed to transcend the sport and – very nearly – become a household name. He’s done mid-ocean live link-ups with BBC Breakfast news, millions have watched his Keelwalk, Mastwalk and Skywalk videos on social media, he’s hung out with Lewis Hamilton and appeared in glossy magazines like GQ.
He’s the one with the monochromatic boats, the slick suits, the crazy stunts. He was the wunderkind who became the youngest ever skipper to win the Clipper Round the World Race in 1999 aged just 25. He has big budget campaigns with a huge marketing profile, he talks a good game, and is not shy of sharing his confidence in his own abilities.
He’s had one of the most spectacular and public runs of misfortune; sinking, capsized, hit by a fishing boat, coming down with appendicitis 24 hours before the start of a race. But he’s also twice smashed the 24-hour world sailing speed record.
So all that must make Thomson a big talent, a big ego, who pushes his boats too hard and takes too many risks, right? Well, that – partly – is his public persona. But personas can only ever be a cartoon sketch of a person. And Alex, with his Milk Tray man suits and James Bond-styled boat, is easily drawn.
As a marketing strategy, it’s brilliant. It has made Alex Thomson and his succession of Hugo Boss IMOCA 60s (six at last count) one of the most recognisable, consistent and high profile brands in sports sponsorship. Up to a certain point, it suits him. He is charismatic, super-confident, fiercely competitive, and a little bit flash.
But he’s also been dealt some of the harshest lessons in vulnerability and failure a sportsman can face. He has continued a commercial partnership throughout situations that seem, on paper, impossible – the Hugo Boss sponsorship deal has, he points out, survived three different CEOs and CMOs (chief marketing officers) at the German luxury goods brand.
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More critically, it has also survived having one boat abandoned and two severely damaged pre-race, and 14 years of campaigning without that elusive big win. “They’ve been terribly loyal, more so than they needed to be,” he notes.
When Thomson finished 3rd in the 2012 Vendée Globe, it was the first solo round the world race he’d ever completed, having pulled out of his two previous Vendées and abandoned ship in the Velux 5 Oceans. To sustain a career for so long (2020 will be his fifth Vendée Globe attempt) proves that Thomson is more than a one-dimensional image.
Talking to him about how he has developed over two decades of trying to succeed at one of sport’s toughest challenges reveals complexities, almost contradictions. Last year he was named the 2018 YJA Yachtsman of the Year. It’s an award voted for by sailing journalists. Given Thomson’s high profile, and inherent media friendliness, it surprised me to realise this as the first time he’d received it. It doesn’t surprise Thomson.
“I haven’t really won anything!” he says, giving me a very direct look. “I won the Clipper in 1998 and I was nominated Offshore Yachtsman of the Year, but I haven’t won anything else, have I?”
It’s true that while Thomson has achieved plenty in the intervening 20 years – podium finishes in two Vendée Globes and a Barcelona World Race, transatlantic and 24-hour record times – he hasn’t actually won much.
Unlike many of the French skippers, for whom events like the Transat Jacques Vabre and Route du Rhum are of huge significance, for Thomson, with his English team and German backers, the shorter races are something of a necessary evil. He doesn’t particularly enjoy them and doesn’t have a great track record in them.
“I find the sprints really hard actually,” he says, “The Route du Rhum will be really hard for me [Ed note: this article appeared in the May 2018 issue of Yachting World, before Alex ran aground during the 2018 Route du Rhum when about to win his first IMOCA transatlantic race] and I really struggle with the New York to Vendée. You don’t really have time to get into the rhythm, by the time you get into it it’s finished.”
It was Thomson’s 2017 Vendée Globe 2nd place finish, coming on the back of a 3rd in 2012/13, that really proved he could deliver consistently top level results – and silenced the critics. “I don’t sail any differently now to then,” Thomson observes.
“In some ways, I was quite lucky to end up with that kind of reputation. Not so much reckless, maybe maverick, which is what people would say; that I pushed it too hard. It’s better than being thought of as too slow, isn’t it? So at the beginning, I enjoyed it. Then there came a period when obviously I was breaking the boat a lot, where it became a bit painful for while. And now I don’t really care. I am who I am.
“I’m not the only one stuff has happened to – go and look at Bernard Stamm’s record, it’s a hard game to be in. But I don’t think I ever pushed the boat too hard. I can’t think of any occasion when the boat’s broken because I’ve been ragging it!”
Mike Golding raced against Thomson for over a decade. “I don’t think he is reckless,” comments Golding, “I think he pushes extremely hard and he’s spent a long time trying to adjust the dials to get a boat to survive his treatment. But he seems to have got that right now. And the net result is he’s extremely competitive.
“He definitely works at the outside edge of the boat, but there’s nothing wrong with that. That can be a winning formula. And he does that, not just on the water, but also in his choices. He’s not constrained by convention.”
What Thomson did change was how he runs his campaigns. “It was really hard to go through the first five or six years in my IMOCA career with all the stuff that happened. You have to learn how to pick yourself up.
“But the reality is in sport you make your own luck, and the lucky teams are, funnily enough, the ones that get the details right and tick more boxes than anybody else.
“So the game-changing moment for me was the realisation that we couldn’t run the team in the way we were. And that was when I started looking for someone to come in and run the business side of it.”
Team CEO Stuart Hosford joined from a successful career at RBS in 2010. “He brought not only a business point of view but he helped bring in the process and the systems that run our team. So sometimes there’s quite a lot of bureaucracy within our team, but we feel that’s how we have to do it in order to capture all the detail.”
The focus on eliminating mistakes was hugely informed by the lead up to the 2008 Vendée Globe, when Hugo Boss was holed and dismasted by a French fishing vessel en route to the start in Les Sables d’Olonne – a situation that ‘absolutely should have been avoided’, says Thomson.
Ten years on, he still gets animated when thinking back to that incident. You do not get many chances in ocean racing, and to throw one away like that hurts.
“That was a boat that was so ready to do that race. It had done the miles. To be honest, that was my best chance to win the Vendée… before this time. It was a hard pill to swallow.”
Having come so close in 2017, there was no real question that he wouldn’t go around the world again in 2020. “I promised my wife that this was the last one… gone,” he recalls drily. “It’s so onerous, it takes up so much. Kay and I had agreed that would be the last one, and then I phoned her the night before the finish [in 2017].
“I said, ‘Look, at the press conference the first question will be, am I going to do it again?’ And she said, ‘Well, you came 3rd and 2nd, it would feel a bit wrong if you didn’t want to go again and go for the win, so if you want to do it I’ll support you.’ So I’m definitely doing one more Vendée.. shall we just…” he pauses, “Let’s just say that!”
“I feel physically and mentally fit to be able to go and win the next one. But the day I don’t feel like I can win, then I’ll stop.”
Thomson says he never feels daunted about the danger of sailing around the world. But this is where the contradictions come in – the mental gymnastics required to balance a life lived on the edge.
“The daunting bit is choosing to spend that time alone, that’s the hard bit to get over. If you are used to sailing on the ocean, it’s just… nice.”
His father was a search and rescue helicopter pilot (his mother died when he was a teenager). I wondered if watching his dad pluck people from the sea gave him a different perception of those dangers?
“No,” says Alex, “You see, you made the assumption that what I do is risky, now I don’t think it is. I never feel at risk. The boats are safe, they really are, they’re amazing bits of kit, fully unsinkable now.”
Has he never felt that perhaps he had just run out of luck? “Maybe, momentarily. Maybe upside down in this boat two years ago, there was like a 20 second period of ‘bollocks to this!’”
That’s not to say he doesn’t feel fear. During his first mid-ocean rescue, when Mike Golding recovered him from a sinking Hugo Boss during the Velux 5 Oceans in 2006, Thomson admits he was frightened.
“Mostly, the overriding emotion for me was sadness about losing the boat. That was a good boat and it was my first. There was a point in the liferaft when my hand got broken and I went into shock and became quite negative. Thought I was going to die. But apart from that…!”
To Thomson, fear is not remarkable. “There are instances where you wake up, the wind’s picked up and the boat’s out of control. I know when I’m scared because I just start sweating profusely through every part of my skin. And I have to stop it.”
He works with sports psychologist, Ken Way (who also saw Leicester City FC on their way to win the Premier League in 2016), on mental techniques to deal with pressured situations. They took that lurching fear, and turned it into a tool.
“One of my problems is that I’m an extrovert and I’m emotional, really emotional. My heart’s on my sleeve and I suffer from lows and highs. It can happen instantaneously – I can go from super low to super high in three seconds.
“The result is when I’m low, I have to work harder. I give up sleep, food whatever. My mood is only governed by my performance, there’s nothing else. But actually my bigger problem is highs, because being high means I can be complacent and there’s no place for complacency on these things on your own.
“So we recreated that aura of invincibility: imagine driving down the road, you feel great, you’re not really paying attention. We took that feeling and related it to a car coming out in front of you and BAM!” he does a full-body mime of an emergency stop. “We recreated all that so whenever I felt that feeling of invincibility then I’d get this other feeling of ‘what’s going to happen next?’
“That’s probably the most extreme example, but it really works, and I can’t separate it from my personal life.” Living with extreme fear is all part of the normalisation of the extraordinary which characterises the best ocean racers.
“One of the feelings when I finish the race and all those 50,000 people turn out, is that you don’t feel worthy. And that’s because, although you know it’s extraordinary, having spent 80 days doing it, it’s become normal.”
Right now Thomson is in the midst of planning his new boat – something he says was as hard as ever to get signed off financially. “We’re about two-thirds of our budget secure, but that’s enough for us to design and build and get on with it.”
They have not announced who will be drawing the next Hugo Boss, although Thomson does say, “We do have the ambition to build in the UK, which is important to us.”
This time around he is building a boat with one single ambition: a Vendée Globe win. “In the days where, performance-wise, we had been terrible, it was hard because you’re having to make choices to make sure that you finish. We couldn’t take any more non-finishes. There’s no compromise now.”
Thomson is fascinated by the technical element of the IMOCA class, as well as enjoying the luxury of being able to commission his own design. And there it is again – that dichotomy between the huge ego needed to feel comfortable with having a multi-million pound yacht custom built with your name on it, and the awareness that the ocean can take it away and humble you in a heartbeat.
“There’s obviously the challenge and all that kind of stuff, but I love the humility of the whole thing. When you go offshore and you can’t see land you know how insignificant we are.
“Plus I get the reward of being able to build a boat just for me, about me, my height, my weight, everything. I can pretty much have whatever I want. It’s so ostentatious!”
Alex on image
“If you look at Armel Le Cléac’h or François Gabart, they’re slick. They turn up with suits to the right events. They do a great job. Some of the grittier side of [the IMOCA world], personally I’d like to see change a bit.
“Because we all stand there and take pictures together, and I don’t really want to be associated with someone who can’t be bothered to tuck their shirt in. To me, that’s not what we do. We’re representing our sponsors and we should look like a professional sportsman.”
Alex on his big break
“I joined Clipper Ventures in 1997 as a bosun. My job was to help refit eight boats, and then Robin [Knox-Johnston] asked if I’d be the first mate on an expedition to Greenland.
“I said: ‘Well Robin, I’m honoured you want me to go with you, but I want to be a skipper in your race. Am I too young?’ He just looked at me and…” Alex deadpans in a pretty good impression of Sir Robin’s famous tones, “He said: ‘I don’t know. Come to Greenland and we’ll find out.’
“Now, knowing what I do and all the responsibilities and stuff that can go wrong, I look at Robin and say ‘Wow, mate, that was a serious risk to take me on.’ But I loved it and it’s made me.”